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Some alimentation is meant less for the body, than for the soul


[The following short story is excerpted from my contribution to an anthology of positive science fiction, 50:50 - Scenarios for The Next 50 Years, by Fast Future Publishing.]

Abigail frowned at the strange choices on offer at Constantin’s Beanery.

Her Sidekick Tandem units lay atop each of her ears, their sensors scanning the outer world in stereopsis, and listening to the inner world within. It noticed the tension of decision fatigue in her biopatterns, and made a pre-selection for her, with a 3-2-1 countdown before confirming. 

Halcyon Mongongo Mélange? Ok.” Abigail’s non-aspirated laryngeal vibrations made no noticeable sound, but the Sidekick’s sensors could amplify the tiny muscular movements and interpret this silent input into meaningful speech. Audio feedback to the user was inducted through the bones of the skull, leaving the ear holes clear.

Abigail trusted her Sidekick to know the optimal choice given her mood, gut biota, nutritional needs, dietary wishes, and openness to new experiences. The blend would typically include a booster shot of whichever supplements were appropriate to dispense for her especially, on a quotidian regularity. The booster was gratis, part of a package of perks given in exchange for allowing her Complete Metabolic Panel data to be live-shared to a Melanesian data broker.

Somewhere, unseen, a ballet of coordinated machine activity prepared the mysterious concoction, before handing it to the lone human beverage artiste. With a final artisanal touch, it was ready to present to the customer with a prideful smile, and a cute little wink. Drink in hand, Abigail followed the glowing AR Pac-Man dots projected upon the floor towards a comfy couch. They barely merited her conscious attention, her mind presently engaged with a flash sale of gourmet vegan hotdog home-cook kits. 

A flickering at the corner of her vision roused Abigail’s attention. With her receipt of the beverage having been registered, and the customer detected as stationary and relaxed, a little dimpled light-grey 3D AR cookie-shaped object gently materialised – A Wisdom Biscuit.

Abigail paused for a moment, staring at the shimmering disc, before dragging it into main view with a faint squint of intention and focus. The biscuit hovered before her, slightly translucent, the flat side orienting to face her. Words began to appear, etched upon the surface in a normal-mapped relief.

Perhaps hell is indeed other people, but the company of good, loving people makes for heaven also.

The biscuit hovered for a moment before flipping vertically. Another message appeared on the other side.

Find the sacred, find yourself, and find community.

“Huh. I’ll… meditate on that, thank you”, Abigail murmured. The Wisdom Biscuit lingered for a moment, pulsed gently, and zoomed away.

“Perhaps Hell is indeed other people”, Abigail mused. Social technologies had increased the perceived social density of society for many years.

It started with the struggles of Bricks & Mortar retail to keep up with online threats. Unable to compete on price, they sought to add value in other ways. The ancestor of the Sidekick was born from the retail world – a tool to give sales assistants insights on customers. The idea was innocent enough – put people at ease, give them a personal experience, and help them to find the right product for their individual needs.

Sales staff loved it. It could pull in info from Social Media on, say, how many kids someone had, their Socioeconomic Status, probable worldview and values. The kinds of details that helped salespeople to paint a vision to the customer, something that typically only came with years of experience. Now anyone could get a turn-by-turn guide to the sales process by a digital Cyrano de Bergerac, no experience needed. It was as disruptive for the sales and service professions as GPS navigation had been to taxi drivers.

Successive versions became more sophisticated; sensor fusion enabled multiple sources of information to be cross-correlated. Bio-signals, for one. Sophisticated movement magnification algorithms acted as a microscope for time. Every little spark of emotion, every frisson of excitement at a certain product attribute, all was abundantly clear.

It didn’t take long before such devices were brought into boardrooms, to give negotiators an edge. The Prosumer versions came soon after. Gain charisma, tell an opportune ‘off-the-cuff’ joke, know when someone was ready to grab their coat and come home with one. But, of course, having so much data on demand changed how people interacted.

That friendly neighbour didn’t seem so friendly when one could read his innermost thoughts posted online. The killer app for AR tech was, of course, the ability to spot the political affiliations of others from afar, to know instantly with whom one was dealing. What tags and attributes had others appended to this person? What transgressions and, occasionally, what noble deeds.

The result was unsettling – the ultimate social panopticon. Great power could be gained by those calling others out for some off-color trespass or other, or some minor social embarrassment. Cam girls putting themselves through college, questionable phases, experimental flings. Layers such as Sour Truth removed makeup and de-flattered the effects of elastic garments, with online searches for nudes to match with the face.  

It took a long time for society to begin to recover from this ultimate social technology, one that we never evolved to cope with. Happiness levels cascaded, in ever-quickening gyres of despair. Mass psychogenic illnesses prevailed.

A moral panic ensued, and the worst excesses of the devices were banned. But the changes remained.

In a process of biofeedback and rapid training loops, simply the using devices altered the brains of the users to be able to perceive extremely subtle cues with a high degree of finesse. The social perception technology taught them the skills of social awareness typically only possessed by psychopaths.

This skillset, in the hands of those who possessed emotionally-empathic affective capacity, was almost as much of a game-changer as language itself was to our primordial ancestors.

For the first time in human history, these erstwhile exclusive capabilities were united in one mind.

The effects were subtle at first. People began to understand their ideological foe as a sensitive human being – a person in three dimensions – even if they couldn’t necessarily understand their reasoning. But they wanted to, at least a little.

People began to become a little more charitable towards each other, and with regards to their intentions.

The method of our undoing was paradoxically also our saviour. In learning how to observe and understand human beings, evolved versions of these technologies could help to translate between those with differing worldviews.

The same technology to turn Swahili into Korean could be used to translate between those to whom the same words meant different things. This was especially powerful if framed as a dialogue – or better yet – a dialectic, with or without an independent arbiter in the mix.

Abigail mused upon the shifts taking shape across society in the years since. “Heaven is indeed the company of good, loving people”. And by giving ourselves to others in such a way, we each play our small role in helping to bring heaven to Earth. 

Abigail turned to her now half-empty cup and noticed a blooming golden aura had started to form around it. She peered inside. At the bottom a misty whirlpool spun. She pulled upwards on it with her intention. A translucent face began to materialise. Its strikingly handsome features transfixed her. It was friendly looking, ethically non-descript, and of not-quite determinate gender or even age; it seemed to blend several contradictory attributes in a slightly eerie liminality. The figure smiled, radiating calm and magnanimity.

“Hello there.  My name is Cousin Laicus. Abigail Arias, I presume?”

“Mmm, yes. Hello, Cousin.”

“Would you like to have a chat?”

“Yes, I would like that very much.” Abigail smiled back.

Abigail smiled to herself with eyes half-closed as the last froth of the animal-free latte bubbled on her tongue. The beverage was cold now, yet still delicious in its nobility – the certainty of being fully aligned with her values.

Her life stance as an Earnest Upright mattered to her, though it had grown on her over time. Abigail considered herself part of a loose tribe of seekers a modern folk movement; those who cultivate a monastic mindset whilst attempting to reconcile that with modern life. The science and art of machine-derived, internally consistent, and generally universalizable computational ethics provided an avant-garde new set of values to live by, though as-yet somewhat incompatible with the mass of humanity. 

She prided herself on practicing how to coolly digest a situation as if from an objective distance, without being swept up by societal norms. Well, it worked to a certain degree, but ‘perfect was the enemy of better’.

For Abigail, the murkiness of moral quandaries always felt clarified upon conversations with the enlightened, like Cousin Laicus.

Abigail’s thoughts drifted back to that long teenaged summer spent spearfishing in Lagos, clambering on the harbour wall. She winced a little at the thought of such thoughtless barbarism, and then a drawn-out sigh.

Machine-derived translations of non-human animal grunts and bleats had finally given a voice to the defenceless, and allowed them to declare their suffering, as well as their agency. The day that she stumbled upon a protest gathering, with the clamor of the farm animals translated in real-time, was an epiphany.

She knew that it was only fair to forgive herself for her prior lack of moral conscience, but it wasn’t always easy. A kind life is a good life. Step by step might such karmic externalities be burned away. Abigail hoped that her next encounter with the Cousins could make her feel like she had made progress.

Absolution. The glow of the cup was faint now.

“It’s a long journey towards the light”, she mused. “Thank goodness for kind machines like Cousin Laicus to help guide our clumsy feet along the way”.